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Fionola Meredith

Why the BBC's gimmicky food show is the last thing anybody wants on their menu right now

Fionola Meredith


In these frightening times, we need tasty comforts, not finger-wagging coercion, insists Fionola Meredith

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The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories left a sour taste in many mouths with the way it presented food

The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories left a sour taste in many mouths with the way it presented food

The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories left a sour taste in many mouths with the way it presented food

Oh joy, just what we need right now: a fat-shaming special by the BBC. We are in the middle of a global panic attack over coronavirus, people are locked in their homes, stressed and scared, and food is one of the few pleasures we're actually permitted. Naturally, our national broadcaster decides it's the perfect time for a preachy programme to make us feel bad about what we eat.

In The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories, broadcast on BBC2 this week, 20 diners were invited to a slap-up meal in a posh-looking eatery. The gimmick? A secret gym hidden in the back of the restaurant, powered by a group of fitness fanatics, ready to burn off every single calorie in the food ordered and eaten by the guests.

Host Fred Sirieix could barely contain his glee as he wondered if the poor dupes would find fish and chips less appealing when they learned they would have to pound a treadmill for 86 minutes to burn it off.

Or how would they fancy the tasty calamari starter if it meant an hour and 12 minutes on the rowing machine?

Maybe the chocolate brownie dessert wouldn't seem so insanely delicious if they knew it would take them an hour and nine minutes of running to cancel it out.

Described as a "groundbreaking stunt for science", the programme was apparently based on research indicating that "when we are shown the astonishing amount of exercise required to remove excess calories from our bodies, we choose to eat up to 20% less".

But the stunt backfired when experts criticised the show, claiming it could be triggering for people suffering from eating disorders.

"We know that the myth that all calories eaten must be cancelled out through exercise has the potential to be devastating to those suffering from or vulnerable to eating disorders," said Caroline Price, director of services for Beat, the eating disorder charity.

"Being told how much activity it would take to burn off particular foods risks triggering the illness further, and we strongly advise against anyone at risk to avoid these sources of information."

Beat was so concerned that it kept its online peer support group open late to deal with increased demand after the airing of the show.

The charity has already experienced a 30% spike in requests for its services during the coronavirus lockdown.

The Bake Off cook and food writer Ruby Tandoh, who has spoken of her own struggle with disordered eating, was equally unimpressed.

"It horrifies me that the BBC would think this is remotely responsible programming at any time, let alone now," she said.

Precisely. The nation is in turmoil. We don't know what the future holds. Is this really the moment to tell us how many jumping jacks we have to do because we ate a whole packet of chocolate biscuits while watching the death statistics on the news?

What I most disliked about The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories was the functional way it seemed to characterise eating. Food as fuel: a basic matter of calories in, calories out.

What a narrow, impoverished and restricted caricature. Food is - or should be - one of the great pleasures of life.

Not something to be guiltily consumed, or compulsively over-indulged in, and then erased through a punishing session on a treadmill.

Food is more important than ever during this time of incredible strain and uncertainty.

It's a source of deep, sustaining comfort. It's a way of nurturing ourselves, or treating ourselves. It's a great way of showing care for others. At its best, food soothes, it enlivens, it restores, it inspires us.

So there's no better opportunity than now, since we're all virtually under house arrest, to get the recipe books out and make something that fills every room with the most reassuring smell in the world - the scent of home cooking.

Ballooning waistlines are a serious problem, for sure, with two thirds of the population overweight or obese.

But attempting to curb people's appetites by turning food into shameful calorie-bombs that must be defused through exercise is surely a recipe for disordered eating.

Where's the joy? Where's the delight?

"A calorie is no measure of the world. It doesn't capture the crunch of a breadcrumb coating around milky pale rings of calamari or the garlic kick of aioli," writes Ruby Tandoh. "It is just the energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by 1°C. Nothing more, nothing less."

The BBC's sanctimonious show has left a lot of people with a nasty taste in their mouths.

We need comfort, not coercion. Perhaps another chocolate biscuit or two will help?

Belfast Telegraph